We Need to Talk About Mental Health and The Matrix

the recent video streaming of Ronnie McNutt’s suicide on August 31 via social media was no anomaly. 

In fact, one leading Criminology PhD researcher, Carolina Are from City University, London, who I interviewed for my own research for my Master of International Relations: Human Rights, has described the impact of social media, and the disturbing potential it has to impact people’s mental health – whether they are perpetrators of online harm, or those who are targeted by harmful content – as ‘an ailment of our times’. 

I should know. As someone whose computer, emails and social media accounts were hacked by a former partner who was domestically violent, and who had to take out an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO) against him as a result, I survived significant emotional turmoil. After persisting for weeks with the police to have my case addressed – which culminated in me desperately bringing my laptop to my local station to show them that someone was logging into my accounts remotely – I ended up fleeing the home we’d shared, and became temporarily homeless as a result. The trauma from that incident was a cost that was long-lasting. In addition to having to scrape together the money to find new rental accommodation whilst I was starting a business, I also had to pay for months of psychological therapy. 

However, it didn’t stop there. As a human rights advocate with a significant public following on my social media accounts who actively speaks out about social justice issues, I have also experienced significant trolling. And, even though I have worked in the media and communications in executive management positions in London, New York, Paris, Jogjakarta and Sydney, and am a digital native who is very socially savvy, being harassed online still hurts. While I believe that anyone who casts judgement from behind a screen without knowing me personally is probably acting out in this way because of their own disillusionment with an aspect of society more broadly, it has still caused me anxiety, and has made me consider deleting my social media profiles. 

But I refuse to do that. Instead, I’ve increased my privacy and comment moderation settings, or dialed them down to the point where anyone who tries to write harmful content on my Facebook and Instagram account is censored out. I’ve blocked people and filed complaints against those who have targeted me with the platforms where I’ve been targeted. 

So do we shoot the social media messenger? As a courageously defiant optimist who believes in the potential for every person to create change for good, I think not. 

Yes, I am concerned about the amount of power that tech giants (and their creators) like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Google and other platforms have, particularly over freedom of speech to which Mark Zuckerberg has said ‘frankly, I agree’. Chris Hughes, Co-Founder of Facebook, in 2019 expressed his grave concern over Zuckerberg’s power, describing his influence as “staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government”. Yes, we know these platforms deliberately engineer techniques to keep users captive online, and have unfortunately been used by individuals to create real world harm. Ultimately, however, I still believe that the benefits the Internet and social media outweigh the negative impacts. Never before has the world witnessed such unparalleled opportunities for connection and the sharing of information. 

In 2018, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, frustrated by the Swedish government’s non-intervention around climate change, decided to go on strike from school. Her act inspired an online viral movement of school students from around the world to join her in solidarity, and, by February 2019, ‘one of the world’s largest ever protests’ in the world had occurred, with young children urging their governments to take urgent climate action. 

Even so,  we do need to talk about mental health and The Matrix. 

The alarming statistics revealed by Amnesty Australia – that 30% of women aged 18-55 have experienced online harassment or abuse – are unacceptable. Whilst the Internet does enable us to connect across borders and has become incredibly important during the uncertain Covid times we are living in, it can also be harmful when people see disturbing content or feel anxious when they can’t access their social media accounts. A recent survey conducted by Sensis revealed that 15% of people experience anxiety when they can’t access their social media accounts. This is indicative of the fact that social media addiction or dependency, particularly amongst young people aged 18-29 – 99% of which are using social media, has implications on the mental health of real world individuals. 

This is why I have founded JustSociale – Australia’s first federally ACNC-accredited NGO dedicated to promoting awareness of Australians’ human rights online, and preventing online harm by advocating for societal change. We are an Alliance of social entrepreneurs, creatives, charities, technology platforms, media outlets, activists, private businesses and members of diverse communities who are passionate about making the Internet universally accessible, so that we can all use it to connect with each other, and the global community – safely. And, whilst we are an Australian NGO, our members come from around the globe. 

Our mission is to inspire all Australians to connect with each other online equally, and with respect for the inherent dignity of all members of humanity. We are inclusive, positively defiant innovators, and we stand for ethical freedom of information. 

And whilst we know that the Internet and social media offer us never-before-seen capacities for connection and have become an essential part of many of our daily lives, we also know that these opportunities are not equally available for all Australians. The digital divide exists in real life. People in remote and regional communities do not have the same affordable, reliable access to the Internet as Australians in urban areas. The voices of diverse communities are censored by algorithms on social media, and people of all ages and backgrounds are uncertain about their online human rights. I know this because I ask them. 

I am a firm believer in the power of collective action, and one that JustSociale promotes. I believe that if we are to prevent online harm and promote good digital citizenship, that all stakeholders with an interest in Internet governance need to work together – including with tech giants – to promote safe, online behaviour and to educate people about what constitutes unsafe behaviour, in order to create societal change. 

Whilst there is no road map for The Matrix and the borderless cyber world, my hope is that by engaging openly, honestly and diplomatically with all members of society about how we can take a proactive, responsible approach to promoting the use of the Internet and social media for good, where all users feel self-empowered and have agency, then the electronic pendulum will swing. And more positive impacts that online connection can have on our mental health will continue to be produced as a result. 

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